Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

So this cool thing happened the other day, and I have no really good place to talk about it. Since this blog is a big mish-mashed mess, I’m going to just put it here.

The first thing that you have to know is that my 8 year old daughter generally doesn’t like to read. She isn’t technically bad at reading; she recognizes the words just fine, and she can sound out what she doesn’t know. But there’s a big difference between being able to read a string of words on a page and being able to read a story  on a page. The former, she could do. The latter… hasn’t been happening. One of the myriad of reasons that my children are now learning at home instead of in school is the fact that my daughter has been behind in things like this for years, despite entering the public school system around the age of two thanks to early intervention programs. I figured that I couldn’t possibly be doing worse than they’ve been doing.

I’ve been trying a few different things to get her to be more engaged while reading. Most recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that her reading selections are all too boring. When she had to read at school, it was the pointless school-like stuff they post on ditto sheets. When I let her choose her own reading material, she opted for the easy route, picking books that were way under reading level. They may have been easier, but they were boring. I figured that if I could find a story she could sink her teeth into, maybe we would start getting somewhere. So I told her we were going to start reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Not an abridged or Disneyfied version; I went to Project Gutenberg so that we could read the original. I picked it because my daughter liked the 2010 movie with Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, and because Alice reminds me a little bit of my daughter (if you met her, you’d know exactly what I mean.)

I didn’t ask for much at first. She looked at the chapter list and all of the text with no pictures and objected profusely — which I expected — so I asked her for five minutes. That was it. And we took turns reading — she will read a sentence and then I’ll read a sentence. She thinks I’m giving her a break by doing that, but what I’m really trying to do is model what reading aloud sounds like when you’re understanding what you’re reading while you’re reading it. I think that’s hard for kids to get, sometimes. In class, teachers start reading to them when they can read the words themselves, not when they can read the story inside the words themselves. It’s a different thing. It’s why when you listen to early readers, they stop at the end of the line as if it had a period when it doesn’t, or they don’t pause at commas — it sounds weird, but it’s because they can read the words, but they aren’t seeing or hearing the story in their heads. And if all they are hearing is themselves and other kids who are doing the same thing… anyway, I wanted her to read, but I also wanted her to hear the story. So we started switching off sentences and reading Alice in 5-minute increments.

And then, the 5-minute increments started to get a little longer. We started reading for 6 minutes, then 7 minutes. Then a few days ago, we doubled the goal time that we’d set together before we started reading, because my daughter couldn’t bear to leave Alice in the predicament that she was in at the time when we’d planned to stop. Then, to top it off, the other day — a day that we were scheduled off from school work — she demanded to read some more Alice. She wanted to know what happened next. Despite not being required to do any reading that day, we finished the chapter we were on.

And that was when it hit me that she really was finally seeing the story, not just the words on the screen. It’s pretty amazing to watch. My older son was basically born reading, and my younger son is 6 and learning, but he’s picking it up much more organically and easily than his younger sister. So this is my first real view of one of my children slowly but surely becoming a reader. And it’s an amazing thing.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

*Note: This is a few years old

I was a teenager in the nineties. I listened to Manson, wore all black, and loved all things dark. As an adult, I’m a cynic in almost every way. I’m an atheist, slow to to trust others, quick with a snarky comment.

But before goth was in, before sarcasm became its own language, I was a child. And as a child, I spent a small part of most days with a very special man. A man who was above things like quick and cutting comebacks. A man who saw the best and brightest in all people and all things. A man who was the epitome of neighborliness. He was everybody’s favorite neighbor: Mr. Fred Rogers. He of the sweaters and tennis shoes. He of the Neighborhood of Make Believe. He of the special delivery movie reels that taught me – and every other kid in the country – things like how crayons were made, or what to expect in Kindergarten. Most importantly, perhaps, he who every day ended our interaction with the same message: ‘You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.’ A powerful message.

To this day, I can’t be cynical and sarcastic after watching an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (I watch them on You Tube with my daughter) or after watching a clip of him speaking. It isn’t simply the message that he delivered, as important as that was. Even more important was the fact that by all accounts, he lived his message. This was a highly popular television personality who reportedly answered every piece of fan mail he received. When fans of all ages stopped him on the street, he took the time to stop and talk to them, to share a little bit of himself, and learn about his newly found neighbor. On more than one occasion, while accepting an award, he used his time in front of the microphone not to talk about himself, but to remember those that loved him and helped him along his way, and what’s more, he asked those in the audience to do the same. I’ve never come across a celebrity horror story about Fred Rogers – everyone who ever met him seems to agree that he was a genuinely kind, selfless, loving man who cared deeply and passionately about the welfare of children.

And children loved him in return, so much so that even now, ten years after his death, children of all ages who grew up with Mr. Rogers’ message of love for his fellow human beings can be moved to tears by our memories of him. Being reminded of Fred Rogers’ words is enough to prompt many of us to resolve to be better people: more loving, more generous, less cynical, less bitter. I think that’s a good thing. Even better is that we can be secure in the knowledge that as flawed as we are, Mr. Rogers would have loved us anyway. Just the way we are.

March 20th is Mr. Rogers’ birthday. If he were alive today, he would be 85 years old. I’d like to think that his spirit, at least, is still alive today. This March 20th, make the effort to make it a beautiful day in your neighborhood. Tell a child that he is special, just by being himself. Tell a friend that you love her just the way she is. Go out of your way to be a good neighbor. You know how, Mr. Rogers taught you. Remember that you, too, make each day special day by being yourself. There’s nobody in the world like you. And I like you just the way you are. I hope you’ll be my neighbor.